International Space Station Observations Offer Insights into Plant Function

New instrumentation will be installed on the International Space Station to provide a unique opportunity to gain important insights into poorly understood ecosystems.

The Science

Ecosystems, particularly tropical forests, play an important role in determining the rate and extent of changes in the Earth system by absorbing and storing about one-third of the carbon dioxide (CO2) released during the use of oil, coal, and other fossil fuels. Current understanding of how ecosystems take up and store CO2 is limited to those areas that can be reached by the scientists that study them. However, these study sites only represent a small fraction of the total land area that needs to be studied to understand how much and for how long plants will continue to help slow the rise of atmospheric CO2 concentration. New instrumentation and technology offer the opportunity to remotely measure many important properties of plants and ecosystems that will determine how the planet will respond to changing environments and provide critical data for scientists to test models of how ecosystems will respond to changes in the Earth system. Specifically, remote measurement of tree height, temperature, CO2 take up, and biochemical composition offers exciting new opportunities for science. This work highlights the deployment of this new instrumentation on the international space station (ISS), informs the scientific community of the opportunity presented by these measurements, and describes ways to use these unique data. The work is the result of detailed discussions and an ongoing collaboration between ecosystem modelers, experimentalists, and remote sensing scientists.

The Impact

This paper provides a clear vision of the ways in which the experimental, modeling, and remote sensing communities can use simultaneous observations of ecosystem structure, function, composition, and biochemistry from a suite of novel sensors that will be installed on the ISS. Importantly, the collection of these remotely sensed data will improve understanding of ecosystems as well as the ability to test predictive models.


To improve prediction of the ability of plants to slow the rate of Earth and environmental change by absorbing and storing CO2, scientists need more data about the composition, function, and structure of terrestrial ecosystems, particularly in remote regions such as the tropics. Unfortunately, current ability to measure and understand important ecosystem processes is too sparse and too spatially biased to make significant progress. Satellite observations are the only source for the required dense, frequent, and spatially and temporally extensive records. The unique collection of measurements anticipated from the ISS will yield important new insights into ecosystem structure and function and provide important new observations to evaluate the models used to understand how important ecosystems, such as tropical forests, will respond to changing conditions.

Principal Investigator(s)

Shawn Serbin  
Brookhaven National Laboratory

Natasha Stavros
National Aeonautics and Space Administration Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Related Links


S.P. Serbin was supported by the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE)–Tropics project. The NGEE-Tropics project is supported by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research within the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. The Exploring New Multi-Instrument Approaches to Observing Terrestrial Ecosystems and the Carbon Cycle from Space workshop and participant travel costs were supported by the W. M. Keck foundation.


Stavros, N.E., Schimel, D., Pavlick, R., Serbin, S.P., Swann, A., Duncanson, L., Fisher, J.B., Fassnacht, F., Ustin, S., Dubayah, R., Schweiger, A., Wennberg, P., “ISS observations offer insights into plant function.” Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, 0194 (2017). [DOI:10.1038/s41559-017-0194]